A Slovak sociologist laughed as he remembered his first experience of computers in communist Czechoslovakia. "It was 1987, and a friend and I had been inducted to the military to do our army service. My friend brought along this really ancient PC which could barely perform the most basic word editing functions. The communists told him to get it off the base, perhaps because they were afraid he would use it for espionage. No one really seemed to know what it was."
Over a decade later, the current government has made information technology one of its highest priorities. But progress remains slow, and one still gets the feeling that the country's leaders still have not grasped the full import of equipping people with IT skills. The distrust has vanished, but some of the ignorance remains.
Not that the Dzurinda government inherited anything resembling an IT programme from its predecessor. Until 1996 at least, the engine of IT growth in this country was the academic sector, which was never a friend of the Mečiar government. Given that IT experts then, even more than now, tended to be university educated Bratislava types, it was easy for the administration to brand them and the Internet per se as 'anti-Slovak'. Responsibility for society's IT needs was passed from the Telecom Ministry to the Statistics Office, and then to the Office for Strategy and Development of Science, Technology and Society, but none made much headway in defining what those needs were. At a spring 1998 discussion of Slovakia's EU accession at the European Networking Policy Group, of which Slovakia is a member, the Slovak representative from the Education Ministry did not make a single remark to the chairman, perhaps because the discussion was in English.
If things have improved since then, it's perhaps more a matter of style than substance. The current government still doesn't have a ministry or official directly responsible for IT, and while Education Minister Milan Ftáčnik is head of the government IT council, this is still only an advisory group. The Economy Ministry has at last produced a draft law on electronic signatures, to spur Slovakia's e-commerce industry, but this law will be toothless until necessary changes are made in the Commercial Code and the Accounting Law.
What is really needed is a public discussion on the implications of IT for Slovak society. One may laugh at the communist fear that data flows would open up a gate to the forbidden West, but the Dzurinda government's apparent conviction that the impact of IT on social and economic relations need not be discussed is no less absurd.
The first point which should be considered is that in Western countries, computers have been a fact of life for almost two decades. Thus, while some people in the West have certainly acquired more familiarity than others, the result is a far more homogeneous distribution of IT skills than in Slovakia, where three years of rapid development have created IT experts of some while not even entering the consciousness of others.
This is bad news, for two reasons. First, it deepens the social and economic divisions that have already been wrought by a decade of transformation, adding yet another area of life which parents and their children cannot discuss. It also handicaps Slovak business, for while the young adepts may leap into e-commerce without turning a hair, their elders, who have far more business and life experience, may find themselves left out of the equation unless a concerted effort is made to give them the necessary IT skills.
The next point which should be considered is who should pay for the IT training most of the country needs. While a recent survey suggests that two-thirds of Slovaks would be willing to learn new IT skills, the fact that almost half of them have never touched a computer argues that the means, and not the interest, is the problem. It's not enough for the government to rely on companies like Siemens and IBM to donate computers to their schools, or to belatedly support IT development schemes like Project Infovek - cabinet must come up with some money and a strategy of its own.
Finally, the IT manpower situation needs to be addressed. Slovak IT experts continue to leave for better-paying jobs abroad, and despite the prevailing view in Slovakia that there will always be enough skilled people around to meet needs, this belief will soon undergo a severe challenge. IT needs to be given star billing as a profession, to be put on the same level as diplomacy, law, medicine and business, in order to attract the funding and the talent necessary to ensure a steady supply of domestic professionals.
Countries which have taken a bold approach to IT development, such as Ireland, have profited from their courage despite making the occasional legislative mistake. The Slovak government should draw a lesson from this, and stop waiting for someone else to dictate the course of information technology in this country. Computers may not be being banned from public life any more, but neither are they being invited in with any degree of conviction.